Wednesday, April 9, 2008

7 trends for the modern american church

Last Saturday, I attended the "Equipped for Excellence" conference in Riverside. This annual event is organized by the Inland Empire Southern Baptist Association and hosted at Cal Baptist University. The conference began 17 years ago as a Sunday School Teacher Training workshop, and has evolved into quite a large-scale teaching conference. This year, attendance surpassed 1500 - what I believe is a new record for "E for E."

There were three things I really enjoyed about this year's conference. First, the fellowship with other church members. A total of seven members from our church attended. It was so good to spend the whole day with them, traveling together, singing together, eating together, and learning together. It made the day not only a time of personal enrichment, but of mutual edification and team building.

Second, I appreciated the organization. From publicity, to registration, to meals, to speakers, to handouts, the whole event was executed almost flawlessly. It's obvious that Marty Leech and his staff put a tremendous amount of time into planning and praying for this event. I applaud them for modeling good organization, communication, and spirit of excellence to all of the Sunday School teachers who were present.

The third highlight was the parables class. After an opening general session, all the attendees split up into different electives. Several from our church chose to attend a class on the parables, taught by Richard Mobley, New Testament professor at Cal Baptist. Mobley did an outstanding job giving an overview, interpretive framework, and specific examples in the parables. His passion and knowledge held our attention all morning and afternoon. Perhaps I'll share some of these principles in a future post.

For now, let me summarize what was said during the general session. We were privileged this year to have Thom Rainer as the keynote speaker. Rainer is the president of Lifeway Christian Resources and has written many books including The Unchurched Next Door and Simple Church. The title of his message was "7 Trends for the Modern American Church." Rainer is a statistics guru. So it came as no surprise when he said most of these observations came from statistical or anecdotal evidence. Here are the seven trends, with some brief reflections:

  1. More and more churches are de-emphasizing evangelism. As Rainer said, evangelism must be taught and modeled by leadership. But even more importantly, the gospel must become more central to all we say and do as a church. We must "guard what has been entrusted to us, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called 'knowledge'" (1 Tim. 6:20). As our people develop a higher view of God, a more accurate view of man, an appreciation for the work of Christ, and an understanding of human responsibility, we will naturally begin to share the gospel with greater compassion, frequency, and effectiveness.
  2. The increasing receptivity of lost people to the gospel. While lost people are probably becoming more receptive to spiritual things, this does not necessarily mean they are receptive to "the gospel." Our postmodern society is driven by feelings, opinions, and experiences, but many resist any claim to absolute truth. We must offer them biblical truth and certainty in a spirit of grace and humility. We must proclaim with confidence that Jesus Christ is exclusively "the way, the truth, and the life" (Jn. 14:6).
  3. The closing of 100,000 churches in the next 10 years (though many others will be started in this same time period). This statistic is too broad to mean much. Does this include all religions? Only Protestant Christianity? The mere existence of a church does not guarantee spiritual health. A little town with 30 churches may be better off with only 10 churches a decade from now, if those 10 churches are more faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, our goal is not simply more churches, but healthier churches.
  4. Sermons and Bible studies based on the same text. If synchronized sermons and Bible studies are helping more churches get into the Word, then praise the Lord! But if more preachers would just be faithful to exposit the Word of God, this would not be a problem. There is a spiritual famine in modern evangelicalism, and many of God's people are starving for biblical truth. Those of us called by God to be pastors have a responsibility to feed the sheep (Jn. 21:17).
  5. Churches implementing a process of discipleship (often tied to a purpose statement). I'm thankful that more churches are becoming clear in their goals and proactive in discipling new believers. We must make sure that these goals and priorities align with the Word of God.
  6. Churches are moving toward four major emphases: right structure, right content, right attitude, and right action. Rainer was moving pretty fast by this point, and didn't have a chance to develop his last two points very much.
  7. Great disparity between the churches that do survive. Rainer didn't explain what he meant by this, but I can attest that churches seem to be growing more diverse rather than more alike. In fact, this seems to be part of the NAMB church-planting strategy. They want to plant a church to reach every sub-culture. So, you end up with a hip-hop church, a biker church, a yuppie church, an emergent church, etc. The problem with this is that the church should be a "melting-pot" of all ages, races, and cultures. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). We must balance our zeal to reach different sub-cultures with our zeal to promote Christian unity. I believe churches should have ministries that cater to these different sub-cultures, but we should ultimately be able to put aside our differences and serve and worship together. Otherwise, we will lack diversity and become dangerously self-centered. One of the hallmarks of the local church should be our ability to co-exist through our common bond in Christ. It may be difficult at times, but I believe it's worth the effort.
At the end of his message, Rainer encouraged us to stop majoring on the minors, keep our priorities straight, and remember that "It is a sin to be good when God has called us to be great." God has chosen to do His kingdom work through the church, and we must learn to appreciate and support it. Very true!


David said...

"If synchronized sermons and Bible studies are helping more churches get into the Word, then praise the Lord! But if more preachers would just be faithful to exposit the Word of God, this would not be a problem."


On another note,
I wish we could get home groups, Sunday School classes and all Bible Studies to understand that they don't have to base their study on the sermon, a book, something published by lifeway or Lucado or anyone else... that the best matereal ever written is in their hands.

I suspect that we give our people so much stuff ABOUT the Bible they dont' feel confident dealing directly with the Bible. So we give them written lessons, and they lose the opportunity to interact with the Scripture personally.

Stephen Jones said...

That's a great point, David. We can really rob people of the joy of discovery if we spoon feed everything to them. Bible studies and quarterlies have their place, but hopefully we are training our people more and more to be students of the Word for themselves.

In seminary, I was challenged that one of the great purposes of preaching is to model good Bible study so that the congregation can continue studying on their own throughout the week. It's like the old proverb, 'give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.'